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Loan Servicers’ Obligation to Maintain Appropriate Database Systems

The background to the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Marchisio v. Carrington Mortgage Services, LLC, — F. 3d — (11th Cir. March 25, 2019)(2019 WL 1320522) demonstrated repeated recklessness by a lender in updating its reporting databases after repeated litigation and settlements.

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The borrowers defaulted on their home loans in 2008; the loan servicer brought a foreclosure action; in 2009, the parties settled with a deed in lieu of foreclosure that extinguished first and second loans and required the loan servicer to report to the credit reporting agencies that nothing more was due on the loans. The loan servicer failed to correct the credit reporting and continued to try to collect on the nonexistent debt, prompting the borrowers/Plaintiffs in 2012 to file a lawsuit under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The parties settled the FCRA suit in 2013, with the loan servicer/Defendant agreeing to correct the credit reporting. The loan servicer failed to timely comply with this correction requirement within 90 days and issued three erroneous reports that the second loan was delinquent.

The Plaintiffs then disputed with the credit reporting agencies the reporting of a balloon payment due on the second loan. In response, the loan servicer investigated the dispute. However, because the loan servicer had not updated its database to reflect the settlements, it erroneously verified to the credit reporting agencies that the Plaintiffs were delinquent, and then in 2014 charged them for lender-placed insurance on the property, which the Plaintiffs no longer owned. This led in 2014 to the second lawsuit with the FCRA claim that the 11th Circuit addressed. This lawsuit “caught Defendant’s attention” and immediately prompted it to update its database, correct its previous errors and accurately report the status of Plaintiffs’ second loan, finally.

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SCOTUS Protects Lawyers Seeking Non-Judicial Foreclosures

Editor’s Note: BCLP’s consumer financial services team is a group of specialized lawyers from around the U.S., adept in state court rumbles, courthouse steps foreclosures, and bankruptcy court interludes. They are also deep thinkers in consumer law, and were waiting for this ruling today. If you have a portfolio of consumer loans and want some efficient, value-maximizing handling, give us a call. Here’s the take from Zina Gabsi, from our Miami CFS practice.

Earlier today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion on whether law firms pursing non-judicial foreclosures are “debt collectors” as defined by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), 15 U.S.C. §1692 et seq. Obduskey v. McCarthy & Holthus LLP, Case No. 17-1307 (March 20, 2019). In its ruling, the Court held that a business engaged in no more than a non-judicial foreclosure is not a debt collector under the FDCPA. (Business lawyers around the US breathed a collective sigh of relief.) Instead, the Court held that those pursuing non-judicial foreclosures are subject to the more limited FDCPA restrictions contained in section 1692f(6).

The FDCPA defines a debt collector as “any person … in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or asserted to be owed or due another.” 15 U.S.C. §1692a(6). But the statute also includes the “limited-purpose definition” which states that “[f]or the purpose of section 1692f(6) [the] term [debt collector] also includes any person … in any business the principal purpose of which is the enforcement of security interests.” Thus, the statute creates a set (debt collectors) and a subset (people that only seek to enforce security interests). The subset certainly includes “repo men,” but according to the Supreme Court, the subset also includes lawyers pursuing non-judicial foreclosures. The subset is subject to far less restrictions and mandates under the FDCPA.

The Court considered three factors in coming to its conclusion: (i) the text of the FDCPA itself; (ii) Congress’s intent; and (iii) the FDCPA’s legislative history. The Court explained that but for the limited-purpose definition (the subset), those pursuing non-judicial foreclosure would in fact be debt collectors under the additional provisions of the FDCPA. However, the Court notes that a plain reading of the limited-purpose definition, “particularly the word ‘also,’ strongly suggests that one who does no more than enforce security interests does not fall within the scope of the general definition. Otherwise why add this sentence at all?” Obduskey, at page 8. To interpret the definition of a debt collector under the FDCPA otherwise would render the addition of the “limited-purpose definition” superfluous. Id., at page 9. Furthermore, the Court posited that Congress “may well have chosen to treat security-interest enforcement differently from ordinary debt collection in order to avoid conflicts with state nonjudicial foreclosure schemes.” Id.

Of note, the Court rejected Obduskey’s argument that “McCarthy engaged in more than security-interest enforcement by sending notices that many ordinary homeowner would understand as an attempt to collect a debt backed up by the threat of foreclosure.” Id., at page 13. The Court explained that such notices were likely required under state law in order to pursue the non-judicial foreclosure and therefore the FDCPA’s “(partial) exclusion of ‘the enforcement of security interests’ must also exclude the legal means required to do so.” Id.

Justice Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion to make two observations: “First, this is a close case, and today’s opinion does not prevent Congress from clarifying this statute if we have gotten it wrong. Second, as the Court makes clear, ‘enforcing a security interest does not grant an actor blanket immunity from the’ mandates of the FDCPA.” She interestingly noted that Congress may not have contemplated the Court’s interpretation because even though States do regulate nonjudicial foreclosures, the FDCPA was enacted “to promote consistent State action to protect consumers against debt collection abuses.”

The holding sheds light (for the moment) on the scope of the limited-purpose exception to the FDCPA’s definition of a debt collector as it relates to nonjudicial foreclosures. “[W]hether those who judicially enforce mortgages fall within the scope of the primary definition is a question we can leave for another day.” Id., at page 12. We will cover that another day too!

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Georgia Supreme Court Weighs in on Director Liability

The Supreme Court of Georgia issued its latest opinion on March 13, 2019 in the continuing litigation over whether former directors and officers of the now defunct Buckhead Community Bank can be held liable for financial losses from commercial real estate loans.

The Georgia Supreme Court had previously advised a Georgia federal court, where the case was filed by the FDIC, that the directors and officers of the bank could be held liable if they were negligent in the process by which they carried out their duties. Following that opinion, rendered in 2014, the case returned to federal court, and a trial was ultimately held in 2016. In that trial, the jury concluded that some of the directors and officers were negligent in approving some loans and awarded the FDIC $4,986,993 in damages.

The trial judge in the case found that the defendants were “jointly and severally liable” for the award, meaning that the entire verdict could be collected from any one of the defendants. The defendants appealed contending that joint and several liability had been abolished by the General Assembly in 2005. The defendants also argued that the trial court should have given the jury the opportunity to apportion the damages among each of the defendants according to their respective degrees of fault. In considering the appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit again sought direction from the Supreme Court of Georgia on this new issue of law.

On Wednesday, in a 39-page opinion, the Georgia Supreme Court responded, providing answers to some, but not all, of the questions raised by the Eleventh Circuit. The Georgia Supreme Court held that joint and several liability can still be imposed in Georgia on defendants “who act in concert insofar as a claim of concerted action involves the narrow and traditional common-law doctrine of concerted action based on a legal theory of mutual agency and thus imputed fault.” The Supreme Court indicated that this was a very narrow exception to the usual rule that damages must apportioned among defendants.

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Lender’s Non-Liability for a Servicer’s RESPA Violation

In a first, a federal circuit court rules a lender cannot be held liable for a servicer’s RESPA violation.

A borrower who took out a home equity loan from Bank of America alleged the Bank is vicariously liable for the failure of its loan servicer to comply with the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), particularly 12 C. F. R. § 1024.41(c)(1). That regulation imposes duties on servicers who receive a complete loss mitigation application more than 37 days before a foreclosure sale to–within 30 days of receipt–evaluate the borrower for all loss mitigation options available to the borrower and provide the borrower with a notice stating which options, if any, it will offer the borrower.

The Fifth Circuit, which is apparently the first circuit to address the issue, held banks cannot be held vicariously liable for the alleged RESPA violations of servicers. Christiana Trust v. Riddle, — F. 3d — (2018) (2018 WL 6715882, 12/21/18). The Court had three related reasons.

First, “[b]y its plain terms the regulation at issue here imposes duties only on servicers” as it states a “servicer shall.” 12 C. F. R. § 1024.41(c)(1)

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Statute of Limitations on Reverse Mortgages

In Hayes v. Reverse Mortgage Solutions, Inc., No. 3D17-1603 (Fla. 3d DCA Nov. 21, 2018), a case of first impression, the Florida Third District Court of Appeals considered whether the statute of limitations for enforcing reverse mortgage loans begins on the date the note matures or upon the death of the borrower.

Defendant contended that the foreclosure action, filed in 2014, was time-barred by the Florida statute of limitation because the cause of action accrued on the date the borrower died in 2008, or alternatively, upon the mortgagee’s acceleration of the reverse mortgage when a prior foreclosure action was filed in 2009. Finding that the language in the reverse mortgage at issue (“[l]ender may require immediate payment in full of all sums secured by this Security Instrument if: (i) A Borrower dies …”) confers upon the mortgagee the right, but not the obligation, to accelerate payment of the debt, the Court held acceleration of the debt based on the death of the borrower is optional and therefore does not automatically amount to accrual of the cause for purposes of the statute of limitations.

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11th Circuit Rejects Reverse Mortgage Foreclosure Statute-Based Defense

The Eleventh Circuit recently rejected a defense to foreclosure based on a federal statute governing insurance of reverse mortgages by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”).

HUD administers a mortgage-insurance program designed to induce lenders to offer reverse mortgage loans to elderly homeowners.  If the loan meets certain conditions, HUD insures against any outstanding balance owed on the loan.  One condition, contained in 12 U.S.C. § 1715z-20(j), provides:

The Secretary may not insure a home equity conversion mortgage under this section unless such mortgage provides that the homeowner’s obligation to satisfy the loan obligation is deferred until the homeowner’s death, the sale of the home, or the occurrence of other events specified in regulations of the Secretary. For purposes of this subsection, the term “homeowner” includes the spouse of a homeowner.

Borrowers and their estates have argued the statute prevents lenders from seeking repayment of a loan subject to a reverse mortgage until either the sale of the home, or the death of both the borrower and his or her non-borrowing spouse – even if the loan documents provide to the contrary.   The Court in Estate of Caldwell Jones, Jr. v. Live Well Financial, Inc., No. 1:17-cv-03105-TWT (decided Sept. 5, 2018) rejected this argument.

In Estate of Caldwell Jones, Jr., former NBA star, Caldwell Jones, Jr., obtained a reverse mortgage secured by his home.  Jones lived in the home with his wife and his minor daughter, until he passed away in 2014.  Jones’s wife was not a co-borrower.

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Modifications on My Mind: When “Will” Means “Must” and a Conventional Hand Signature is Not Required

The Sixth Circuit has issued another opinion regarding loan modifications, following its opinion two weeks ago in Segrist v. Bank of New York Mellon (2018 WL 3773785, August 9, 2018), on which I earlier wrote.

Now, in Pittman v. Experian Information Solutions, Inc. — F.3d —- 2018 WL 4016604, August 23, 2018), the Sixth joins the First, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits, in holding that loan servicers are contractually obligated under the terms of their Trial Modification Plan (“TPP”), pursuant to the Home Affordable Mortgage Program (“HAMP”), to offer a permanent modification to borrowers who comply with the TPP by submitting accurate documentation and making trial payments.

The Court relied on language in the TPP that said, “[a]fter all trial period payments are timely made and you have submitted all the required documents, your mortage will be permanently modified.” The court noted hornbook contract law that “the mere fact that an offer or agreement is subject to events not within the promisor’ control … will not render the agreement illusory.”

Additionally, the TPP was sufficiently definite to constitute an enforceable contract, even though it did not set the precise terms for the permanent modification, because HAMP guidelines provide the existing standard by which the ultimate terms of the permanent modification were to be set in order to bring down the monthly payments to 31% of gross income.

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Lender’s “Boilerplate” Disavowal Dooms Rescission of a Common Loan Modification Agreement

In a case with potentially broad implications, the Sixth Circuit becomes the first federal circuit court to hold that the Truth in Lending Act provides no right to rescind a loan modification agreement entered into with a successor creditor. TILA exempts from rescission “refinancing” transactions with “the same creditor secured by an interest in the same property” but not “refinancing” with a different creditor.

The case impacts those borrowers whose loans were assigned after origination (an everyday occurrence), and who seek rescission after receiving a common form of modification that lowered their interest rate, recalculated the principal due to include only the unpaid balance plus earned finance charges and premiums for continuation of insurance, and perhaps even extended their payment schedule.

Regulation Z provides that a “refinancing occurs when an existing obligation … is satisfied and replaced by a new obligation undertaken by the same consumer” and that a refinancing does not include a “reduction in the annual percentage rate with a corresponding change in the payment schedule.”

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Dutta: The Ninth Circuit Strikes Another Blow to FCRA Plaintiffs

On July 13, 2018, in Dutta v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, 895 F.3d 1166 (9th Cir. 2018), the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed summary judgment against a plaintiff that lacked Article III standing to assert a claim under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1681, et seq. (“FCRA”).

The Ninth Circuit relied on Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016), and held that the plaintiff lacked standing because he “failed to establish facts showing that he suffered actual harm or material risk of harm.”

This ruling is significant in the Ninth Circuit and elsewhere because it provides construct under which defendants may successfully challenge a plaintiff’s Article III standing to assert claims under the FCRA or other federal statutes.

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner’s full client alert on the Dutta decision is available here.

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Restricting Corporate Authority to File Bankruptcy

A dramatic recreation of the fight over corporate authority to file bankruptcy.

The Fifth Circuit recently issued an opinion that federal bankruptcy law does not prohibit a bona fide shareholder from exercising its right to vote against a bankruptcy filing notwithstanding that such shareholder was also an unsecured creditor. This represents the latest successful attempt to preclude bankruptcy through golden shares or bankruptcy blocking provisions in corporate authority documents.

In this post on the Bankruptcy Cave, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner attorney, Jay Krystinik, analyzes how the Fifth Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Bankruptcy Case Due to Lack of Corporate Authority to File (and potentially provides a blueprint for veto powers over bankruptcy filings).

“There is no prohibition in federal bankruptcy law against granting a preferred shareholder the right to prevent a voluntary bankruptcy filing just because the shareholder also happens to be an unsecured creditor by virtue of an unpaid consulting bill. . . . In sum, there is no compelling federal law rationale for depriving a bona fide equity holder of its voting rights just because it is also a creditor of the corporation.”

The Fifth Circuit was careful to limit its holding to the facts of this case. “A different result might be warranted if a creditor with no stake in the company held the right. So too might a different result be warranted if there were evidence that a creditor took an equity stake simply as a ruse to guarantee a debt. We leave those questions for another day.”

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